Chapter 1: Prologue
“Doctor,” Bastila said. “How is the... patient?” She had to force the word out of her mouth, past harsher ones like prisoner. They were both true, she reassured herself. And the first was more pressing.
“Awake and restless,” Doctor Yann said, with a wry look. “Her physical recovery has been remarkably quick, considering the state she was in when I first saw her. With proper physical therapy, she’ll probably be combat-ready again in only a few more weeks—though I’m sure you’ll be pleased to know that her mental injuries have necessitated a lighter regimen than she could otherwise handle.” Their voice was downright sardonic, making it very clear what they thought of the military’s—and Jedi’s—priorities. Yann had sworn one of the stricter doctor’s oaths, which was why they’d been trusted with this job in the first place, but they clearly loathed the circumstances they had walked into.
Bastila swallowed her own discomfort. “Is her mind healing too?” she asked, keeping her tone level. “How quickly?”
“She’s beginning to remember me for days at a time, though I expect at least some of that is the willpower thing that you people do. A lot less suggestible, too.”
“She’s a former terror of the galaxy with an attention span currently measured in gizka,” Yann pointed out. “By that metric, things are going disturbingly well. She’s started asking for you, though.”
Bastila’s blood went cold. She wished, deep in her heart, that she could say that she was surprised... “If her false memories are otherwise holding,” she said, “then speaking with the patient seems—unnecessary.” But curiosity was getting the better of her anyway, damn it. “What exactly does she want?”
“‘The woman who brought me here,’” Yann quoted, with a passible attempt at Rev—the patient’s accent. “She doesn’t know what happened and seems to accept that she won’t remember, but she knows you saved her life.” Their glare was positively acidic. “Funny, isn’t it.”
“I don’t know what you’re accusing me of, Doctor, but I assure you—”
“I think she remembers exactly what you’d like her to remember,” Yann said. “And I suppose it’s not my place to argue those specifics, now is it?”
“No, it’s not,” Bastila snapped, “because you’re wrong. She forgot everything, yes—you’ve seen the brain damage yourself.” She lifted her chin, daring the doctor to deny it. “If anything remains of her old life, it’s something she held onto. Not something I put in.”
There was a sigh. “I believe you,” Yann said, resigned. “You have no idea how far you’re pushing my oath, but I believe you.”
“Should I have just killed her, Yann? Tried to put a woman with no memories on trial?” Bastila shook her head. “This is the best we can do for her. I promise.”
“No, it’s not.” Yann snorted derisively. “But that’s between you and High Command, I suppose.”
“I answer to High Command, for as long as I am in this war. I answer to the Council, and will for the rest of my life.” Bastila’s voice was clipped and reproachful; she knew she was being needled, but she couldn’t stop herself from bristling. “They made this decision, Doctor. The rest of us have to live with it.”
“Maybe so.” There were a few moments of silence, and then: “I think you should speak to her, though.”
“You rewrote that woman’s whole life, Bastila. Maybe she was a monster before, but now she’s a head trauma patient, and you’re all she has.” Yann stared into Bastila’s eyes, unflinching. “And don’t try to tell me she has us! When she’s healed, she’ll be shipping out with you, and she’ll be a person as well as a live grenade.” They shook their head. “Treat her like one, Jedi, or there will be a price to pay—by the Void, I guarantee you that.”
Bastila had to stop herself from taking a step back, struck by the doctor’s sudden vehemence. “I—yes,” she found herself saying. “You win, Doctor. I’ll speak with her.”
Someone had, for some reason, brought the patient a swivel chair. She was using it, idly spinning herself—with her hands, thank goodness, not the Force—as she stared into the distance, her expression somewhere between thoughtful and troubled. Like there was something she was trying to consider, out past the walls.
She looked… uncomfortably vulnerable. This was the woman who had brought the Mandalorians to their knees, who had turned on the Republic for what seemed like no reason at all, who had been willing to burn worlds on her dark crusade and never once mention why—and this was what she had been reduced to. A prisoner with no name, no past, and no goal, anonymous even to herself.
Her eyes were hazel green, now—they had been a daunting orange-gold, at the beginning—but there was still a terrible sharpness behind her gaze. It came around to meet her visitor’s, and it was only Jedi training that kept Bastila from flinching away. But Revan smiled at her, with horrible sincerity, and that was so much worse.
“Hey,” said a voice that had ordered atrocities. “I guess I’ve been cleared for visitors, huh?”
Bastila swallowed. There is no emotion… “Yes. Do you remember what happened?”
“I’m told I won’t,” Revan said, with all apparent lack of concern. She rolled her shoulders and stood, shoving the chair back into the desk she’d been given; it was covered in sheets of flimsi. Most of them looked like notes she’d written to herself. “The doctor says it was an accident at the end of basic. It was… vehicle-mounted weapons training. Someone lost control of their bike and hit me. And—you were there, for some reason—” Sparks of pain blossomed in the Force around her, and she squeezed her eyes shut, clearly trying to push through them. “You were observing,” she bit out. “We were being considered for a posting under you. I was told that, when I asked. And you saved me. I… remember that.”
The pain faded. Bastila realized her own hands were shaking, just slightly. She took a deep breath and recentered herself, focusing on her shielding. It was important, when she touched others’ minds so closely, to remember to protect her own. “Very good,” she said, and somehow her voice stayed cool and even. “I’m told you’re retaining memories now?”
“For a while. The doctor has me writing things down, so I don’t forget. And so they can track my recovery.” Revan laughed, quiet and wry. “And, I suspect, so that I stop asking the same questions every day or two.”
A couple months ago, her retention had been measured in hours at the most. Bastila had been there, day after day, barely sleeping, as she wound and rewound the threads of memory. Your name is Hestera Soral. You are a soldier of the Republic. You are good, and loyal, and you have never dreamed of command or glory or the deep whispering of the Force. There is nothing on your conscience but the occasional blithe or petty moment, and you are happy as you are.
It was the only mercy Bastila had been able to give her.
“Hey. Don’t get lost in thought on me,” Revan said, quietly. “It’s not… do you think it’s your fault? It’s not your fault, Bastila. I should have dodged faster, and that’s all.”
“It is. I was—ah, a distraction.” The words came out of Bastila’s mouth too hastily, because what she was thinking was: I never gave you my name.
“I should have anticipated it.”
Real feelings, rationalized. Bastila could feel a swell of bitterness, staining the Force between them, and had to stop herself from reaching out a hand. “Don’t,” she said. “If there is someone who should have reacted faster, it’s me—you’re not a Jedi. You could never have dodged in time.”
“Then I should have noticed that he was losing control,” Revan said, with a minute shrug. “You don’t need to reassure me, I promise. I’m alive, and I’ve learned my lesson.” A grin tugged at her lips. “Which is more than most people who catch speeder bikes can say.”
Bastila winced. She was, suddenly, not the liar she wished she was; her mouth stubbornly refused to disgorge any of the things she should have been saying.
Revan took this in, watching her intently for a moment, and then looked wry. “I suppose I washed out of that evaluation, huh?” she said, her voice still strangely soft. “But I wanted to see you before you headed out to win this war. This is probably the only opportunity I’ll get to thank you, Bastila—so thank you. It was an honor to even have the chance.”
Don’t look at me like that, Bastila thought, desperately. There was an absolute intensity in that gaze, and it held her like she was the only thing in the galaxy. Like I’m—
She couldn’t finish the thought, but it finished itself: Like I’m you.
“No,” she said. “That is, you didn’t wash out. You’ll be coming with me.”
A blink, and then another smile, as bright and sharp as the point of a saber. “Thank you again, then,” said Revan, sweeping a bow. “I will not let you down.”
“I’m sure you won’t,” Bastila assured her, and wished that she too would forget this. That the whole conversation would vanish from her memory when it vanished from Revan’s, instead of haunting her like she knew it would.
She was never, ever going to escape the look in those eyes.
The Endar Spire, Taris space
It was like snapping back to existence. One moment, there was nothing but the Void, dark and weightless—
The next, there were alarms.
Hestera Soral glowered muzzily at the ceiling, swore in a language she was too tired to name, and rolled out of bed. “Kark being third shift,” she muttered, grabbing around for a locker that wasn’t there. Where were her boots? They should have been…
Except she’d been in medbay for the last two months.
She took in a deep breath, then let it out. Focusing had been difficult; she could remember very little of her recovery period, but the splitting headache she’d been living with was very, very hard to forget. It was gone now, though, and when she took in her surroundings—they felt real.
It was nice to be able to think, even if, strictly speaking, there wasn’t very much to think about. Hestera found her locker, pulled on her boots and her uniform jacket—at least, she thought wryly, the petty officer wouldn’t care she’d been sleeping in her pants—and headed for the exit with a well-drilled calm. She opened the door—
Or didn’t, because it was extremely locked.
This made sense, on some level. The doctor had only been mostly sure she was well enough to resume duties; if she’d wandered off and had a memory lapse halfway to the training gyms, that would have been very inconvenient for everyone. But the ship was under attack and she was locked in her bunkroom, which was, currently, very inconvenient for her.
This is, she thought, distantly annoyed, a very poor design choice. The alert should have let her out, damn it. What if an evacuation order had come through?
Or maybe it was just pragmatism. A head trauma patient with a gun, walking into a combat situation…
There was something morbidly comforting about that thought. At least someone, somewhere, had done the math.
Hestera sighed, quietly, and fished through her belt pockets for something to pop the door panel with. She didn’t have the first idea about slicing, but if there was ever a time to learn—well, she didn’t have anything better to do. And my kit has a multi-tool. Excellent.
(Her fine motor control seemed to have entirely returned to her. That was a distinct relief.)
She had gotten two of the fiddly little bolts out by the time the door slid open, revealing her roommate. Human, tall, old enough to have been weathered a bit—yes, she vaguely remembered meeting him, a couple days ago. His name eluded her.
There was a moment of awkward silence. He stared at her.
“I see you’ve saved me the trouble,” said Hestera, grinning as she straightened up. “The rescue is appreciated. You’re my bunkmate?”
“Trask Ulgo,” he said, and thereby moved up a notch on her favorability scale. “I’m surprised you’re—alert. But it’s good, all things considered. You ready to move?”
“I am a picture of military readiness. Unless you happen to be a speeder bike.”
Trask chuckled, maybe despite himself. “Not last I checked,” he said. “Come on—we’ve got to go. Bastila’s on the bridge; we need to make sure she gets out.”
I need to get to my station, she didn’t say, because she couldn’t quite remember where it was. I’m a green crewman, and she’s a Jedi, she didn’t say, because if she was asked to die for the Republic’s best hope, she’d do it in a heartbeat. “You’ll have to lead the way,” she said instead, voice low. “Head trauma, and all that.”
He nodded and raised his rifle again. “I can do that,” he said. And they moved.
The ship was eerily empty, all sound and shaking metal around them. Hestera kept pace a half-step behind Trask, her rifle a cold weight in her hands. The pair went quickly—not running, because that was how you ended up taking a Sith soldier to the chest and a blaster bolt right after, but hustling from one point to another, glancing around, and then doing it again.
“We’ve evacuated,” she said, as he bent to hotwire a lock. “Haven’t we.” (It wasn’t a question.)
That got a grunt of contrition. “The bridge crew’s mostly dead,” he admitted. “Onasi put out the evac order, but the loudspeakers aren’t working. Hope you aren’t going to run for the escape pods?”
“I didn’t enlist to save my own skin.” Hestera frowned and took a step away from him, on edge in a way that was somehow different than before. More immediate, maybe.
The headache was beginning to come back, a throbbing at the base of her skull that was difficult to ignore. Not now, she thought. Void, not now. “Trask—what’s on the other side of that door?”
“One of the main junctions. Why?”
She set her jaw against the pain. “Just a bad feeling.”
“It is pretty exposed,” he muttered, half to himself. “Maybe you’ve got a ship map in that subconscious of yours… alright. I think I can get it open.” He glanced up at her. “Be ready for a firefight.”
She felt ready for a firefight. (She felt like she had never been so ready for anything as for a firefight.) The ship trembled under her feet, her head was pounding again, and a squad of two was just asking to be crushed on numbers alone—but, Void, something in her was certain she had a chance. “Yes, sir.”
(He had a second lieutenant’s stripes on his uniform, which shouldn’t have been an afterthought, but that was adrenaline for you. It cared about threats to life and limb, not protocol.)
Trask clipped something to the mess of wires he’d been working, began to gesture for Hestera to take the other side of the door, and then nodded when he saw she’d already done it. “Three,” he muttered, raising his rifle, “two, one…”
The door opened. Time stopped, or possibly exploded—for a sliver of a moment, Hestera thought grenade, but it was only a blaster bolt hitting a conduit. She snapped off a return shot at the trooper who’d fired it before she’d really registered their presence, turned as they fell, and then (the Sith troops were reacting so slowly) dropped another of the shiny black-armored squad. Trask, taking cover beside the doorframe, had managed to take out a third. That left two remaining—
One launched themself at her, holding a kriffing vibroblade, and she fired and missed and—in a beautiful, vicious moment—parried with her blaster rifle, the blade whining and sparking as it pressed into the metal. Hestera pushed forwards, grinning horribly, and then suddenly shifted to wrench the sword out of her opponent’s hand. They grabbed for it, but her rifle was apparently undamaged enough to fire; their fingers never reached the hilt.
She fired another shot into their head to make sure.
(Three kills. Her first—but adrenaline seemed to have inured her to any immediate psychological reaction. Good.)
Time unthickening around her, Hestera picked the blade up in her left hand, letting her strap take most of the rifle’s weight, and turned. Trask, breathing hard, had managed to take out his own melee combatant before they got to him.
He eyed her new weapon dubiously as she approached. “You trained with that, Crewman?”
“Sure. Anti-Sith measures. Even if the best we can do is slow them down…” She allowed her rifle to drop completely, clicking the safety on as she did, and offered him a hand up. “I suppose those two were expecting Jedi.”
Trask accepted the hand, frowning. “They know we’ve got Bastila,” he said. “They’ll have come equipped to meet her guard. Ah—good shooting, by the way. You feel okay after that?”
She did. She felt better than okay, honestly, especially since the pain had faded in the heat of the moment. Everything seemed very simple and mechanical, like she could think and act and forget anything but the next step in front of her. “I do,” she said. “No telling how I’ll feel once the adrenaline wears off, of course—sir.” She swept a critical eye across her surroundings. The hall junction was littered with bodies from both sides, including a Jedi who looked like they’d been dropped by a lightsaber to the chest. “But I somehow don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
“Good. That’s good.” Trask didn’t sound entirely reassured, but he bobbed his head in a brief nod and gestured for her to follow him into the graveyard of a junction. It looked like about thirty corpses total, more from the Sith side, most of those from lightsaber wounds—the Jedi and his unit, outnumbered but not overwhelmed until an enemy Force user had arrived. The Sith was nowhere to be found, which was half good (two normal soldiers would barely be a speed bump), half worrying (if the enemy had already found Bastila, if she was captured or dead—could the Republic still win?), and fully out of their hands either way.
Seized by a sudden thought, Hestera bent down and relieved a fallen soldier of his grenades. “Looks like he’s used two,” she murmured, turning the bandolier over in her hands. “That leaves us with four. Want one?”
“What? Oh.” Trask made a face. “I wouldn’t have thought to do that, but… yes.” He held out a palm.
She set a grenade into it. “Don’t think of it as looting,” she said, with a mirthless smile. “Think of it as conserving materiel.”
“If you’re looking for a moral argument, I don’t have one. Doesn’t mean it leaves a good taste in my mouth.” Trask walked another couple feet down the hall and turned, scanning the various exits for more attackers. The alarm wailed. Another impact shook the ship. His perpetual frown deepened, and he headed towards a side corridor. “They’ve cleared pretty far on the main route. If we want to get there without running into that Sith—or those Sith, Void forbid—we should try another way.”
“Any chance that Bastila has evacuated already?” Hestera asked, moving to follow. “Or left the bridge, at least? I don’t like our chances that they haven’t already gotten there.”
Trask’s voice was leaden. “We haven’t been blown into scrap. She’s still aboard.”
Ah. If the evac had been given, that made perfect sense—though it only spurred Hestera’s hopes that Bastila was giving the Sith a merry chase. “Hold on a moment, then.”
“Huh? What for?”
She was already moving. “I’m going to get that dead Jedi’s saber.”
His boots thumped hurriedly on the floor behind her. “Absolutely not—” he began, far too vehement, and then she heard him let out a breath. “What do you even want it for? They’re not like vibroswords—your instincts would be all wrong!”
“Not if what I want is a plasma cutter.” She grinned back at him, the idea glittering in her head like a newborn star. It wasn’t much. It really wasn’t much. But it was a step in the right direction—a reduction in their travel time—a flicker of hope snatched from this slow-motion defeat. She half-skidded to a stop beside the Jedi’s corpse, already bending to pick up the weapon. Her fingers closed around it, and—
—a black wave of pain nearly laid her out on the floor. Something about the way she’d moved disagreed with her immensely; the hilt dropped from her hand and rolled away, her reflexes too pain-dizzy to grab it.
Trask snapped it up. She made a small, incoherently frustrated noise, and he shook his head, his expression a mask of worry. “I… think I should hold this,” he said, quietly, “if your concussion’s still that bad. Can you stand? I—don’t want to leave you…”
But he would have to, if she couldn’t move quickly. They were far past the point where a wounded soldier might be dragged to the escape pods. Gritting her teeth against the grim pounding of her skull, Hestera nodded and shoved herself up, fighting the way the world spun and wove around her. That damn alarm kept shrieking, which really did not help, but somehow she stood and kept standing; somehow she followed Trask as he began to move again. “Don’t slow down,” she bit out, even as she wobbled on her feet. “We don’t have time for that, I don’t need pity—”
“Crewman Soral,” he snapped, “hold yourself together.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her along, and after a dizzy, fumbling moment, she felt steadier for it. “We can still do this, but not if you’re trying to fight me as well as the enemy. Is that clear?”
Hestera swallowed an indignant comment, bit down hard on her cheek, and said, “Yes, sir.” Then, unable to let it go: “I’m fighting my damn concussion, not you.”
“Then don’t fight me over your damn concussion, yeah?” The length of his rifle swung awkwardly from his strap, threatening to whack both their knees, and he sighed. “Can I let go, or—”
“It passed,” she said. “It’s passing. Let go.”
He did, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Halfway throwing herself towards that saber had been a mistake, but at least she wasn’t going to die for it—the headache was receding quickly. (If she got out of this, she was going to ask a medtech whether that was normal for concussions.) The pair recovered their earlier ground and pushed forwards down a side hall, Trask stopping to carve an awkward hole through the first door they came to. Then, on the other side of that small meeting room, the second. Hestera almost went to help him shove it forwards, but—someone needed to be combat-ready if there were hostiles on the other end.
There weren’t, thankfully. The door-turned-scrap-metal landed with a horrible clang, and a panting Trask walked over it. “Those things are harder to move than it looks,” he said, wry. “I’m not asking for a hand, but…”
“Maybe you should give me the saber,” she said, voice low. “If I’m injured, then it’s better that—ah, that I be the one in that position.”
“Crewman, please stop trying to heroically sacrifice yourself.”
“Lieutenant,” she replied, “with all due respect—better me than you.”
Trask stalked towards the far wall, that humming sky-blue blade still lit. “No,” he said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “I won’t have that on my conscience. I didn’t get through the Mandalorian Wars with my soul intact to—” He cut himself off abruptly, once again shaking his head. “But all that was before your time. The answer is no, and that’s final—you’re under my command, you’re my responsibility, and I take that seriously. Got that?”
And if you die, and I suffer an attack at some crucial moment? Hestera almost asked, but his face was so absolutely set that arguing would only waste time. And they didn’t have time to waste. “No. But I won’t fight you—sir.”
“A commander’s got to keep their soul,” he muttered, almost too quietly to hear over the hum of the saber. The wall spat sparks as he cut a ragged archway into it, working the saber up and down almost like it had mass, expression filled with a desperate kind of determination. He really believed Bastila’s life was riding on this, she thought—that they were going to make the difference.
It was somehow not a surprise at all to realize she believed it too.
There had been three of them on the ship, at the beginning—three handlers, either far too few or far too many. Enough for the secret to be precarious. But the second had died before Trask’s eyes, going to him because she couldn’t get his quarters open, and the third was Bastila herself.
He hurried the person who wasn’t Revan anymore through the dying ship, the knuckles of his left hand going white around the hilt of a saber he didn’t have a clue how to use. They dodged a small series of conference tables as they went, one still showing a flickering display. He cut out another door—they were almost there, he thought—in silence, and some part of him remembered the old days of the old war. He’d seen how the Jedi did it, and they really had made it look easy. Maybe it was telekinesis.
Room number four was lined with consoles, all blinking red or orange. The door, he knew, opened back onto the hallway just before the bridge. He stepped towards it, lightsaber raised—
And the gravity cut out, taking the lights with it.
Trask swore, just a breath out of sync with his amnesiac charge—though her invective was a lot more creative than his. He held the saber away from himself and fumbled for a handhold, muttering “damn, damn, damn” under his breath. At least the blade was a decent light source.
There was a small scraping sound as Hestera shoved the point of her vibrosword against the ceiling, using it to lever herself towards the door. She got her fingers around the small handhold beside it and twisted, giving him that unsettling grin of hers. He never would have imagined she’d smile so much—that the face behind the mask could have been so expressive. But the expression itself was entirely believable, thin and crooked and adrenaline-touched. “Need a hand, Lieutenant?”
It was only the saber-light that made her look like some kind of phantom, and Trask wasn’t a superstitious man anyway. He took the offered hand—and then cursed again as the power chose that moment to cut back in. Miraculously, he managed to avoid sticking the lightsaber into himself, his charge, or the vacuum-bordering wall to the left.
Less miraculously, he bashed his knee on the door.
Hestera laughed. It was a strangely warm sound, especially in the midst of their near-hopeless situation; she disentangled herself from the ungraceful heap she’d landed in and tapped the point of her sword on the doorframe. “Do you, ah… need another hand?” she asked, clearly swallowing more inappropriate mirth.
“Think the last one did enough damage,” Trask said, with a grudging chuckle of his own. He pressed the hilt against the doorframe, flicked the saber back on, and began to cut upwards. It was only efficient, after all. Him needing a moment to get his balance back was—well, no, not entirely immaterial, at least not if he wanted to keep a straight face.
He could hear her move at his back, shifting back into a combat-ready stance. “Well, then,” she said, voice soft and teasing, “next time I’ll be sure to leave you in the dark.”
Trask was saved from having to reply—he had never been the sort to banter in a crisis, before all this—by a crackle of static from his ear-comm; he pressed his unoccupied thumb against it in a flash of terrified hope. “Hello? This is Second Lieutenant Ulgo—is someone out there?”
“This is Captain Onasi. I’m tracking your life signs at the emergency station.” He let out a short, sharp sigh, the sound warped by comm distortion. “I’ll be quick—Bastila is on her way to the escape pods. You and whoever’s with you need to follow, fast. Got that?”
“Roger,” said Trask, dragging the hilt down the final length. “We’re nearly at the bridge; came through the auxiliary ops rooms. Route?”
“Second door on the right of the bridge,” came Carth’s response. His voice was tight with well-warranted impatience.
Trask put his shoulder against the door and shoved. “En route,” he grunted out.
The metal slab hit the ground, revealing… no enemies, but a hell of a lot of corpses. Mostly Republic, but there were a large number of ex-boarders scattered around as well. One wall was scorched like someone had flung a grenade at it and held it there—which might have happened, if it had been thrown at a Jedi. Or a Sith. But there were no dead Sith in the hall, and a couple Jedi—young ones, maybe younger than Bastila—lay slumped against each other, killed fighting back-to-back. It was a tragedy the way all battlefields were, empty and brutal and pointless.
Hestera’s gaze lingered on the fallen lightsabers for a moment too long, sending Trask halfway into panic, but she just shook her head and nudged one towards its former wielder with the tip of her boot. “What a mess,” she muttered.
What a mess. Trask swallowed a feeling he had no name for—not grief, not anger, but just as hungry for closure—and headed towards the second door on the right, ignoring the bridge’s double-doors entirely. “No time to dwell on it,” he said, for her benefit and his.
“I know.” Her voice had a strange cast to it. She plucked a grenade from her scavenged bandolier as she followed, her rifle now hanging abandoned at chest level; Trask took private note of that, suspecting another bad feeling.
“Onasi,” he said, touching his ear-comm, “can you play mission control? If you’ve got our life-signs…”
Static still reigned, but Carth’s voice was audible: “Five behind that door, in from a side hall. Damn. There’s no other route, not without adding more time than you have—”
“Let us worry about that,” said Trask. “Crewman—the voice guiding me says there’re five on the other side of that door. Onasi, can you get it open?”
“Tell me when.”
Hestera lifted the grenade, watching the door with calculating anticipation. “They say yes? Stand back.”
Trask hurried behind her, shoving the lightsaber into a belt pouch and lifting his rifle in both hands. “Do it,” he said, and the door slammed open.
Hestera lunged forwards, hurling the grenade ahead of her; the enemy only got off a couple panicked shots before it exploded in their midst. Most of the Sith soldiers didn’t move again—Trask fired at the one that was still trying to raise their gun, hitting them in the leg—
The vibroblade plunged into the soldier’s less-armored rib area, making a distinctly horrible noise, and Hestera pulled it away bloody. “Can you get me on that comm channel?” she asked, without so much as pausing for breath.
Trask wrestled down a sense of whiplash. “I can try. Onasi, can you reach Soral’s comm?”
“Working. Bastila’s almost here, by the way—if the Sith couldn’t sense her, we’d probably all be dead. Hurry.”
There was another hiss of static as Hestera’s ear-comm connected. “Thank you,” she said, her voice overlaying itself in Trask’s ears.
They had been moving as this happened, Hestera holding her bloody sword like someone more practiced—even if Trask knew it was wrongly practiced—than she was supposed to be. Her adrenaline-spurred levity had disappeared, leaving her expression hard and feral. Maybe some part of her could feel them running out of time.
Trask watched his charge less than he watched the hallways, his gaze flitting about, his ears straining to hear any approach. The alarms had died with the power, but hadn’t come back with it; now it was eerily quiet. His heart thumped in his chest. He wasn’t afraid to die—or at least he told himself he wasn’t—but his body was, and he at least didn’t want it to be now. Not when it wouldn’t matter.
They were a bit over halfway down another hall when the comm again crackled to life. “Bastila’s pod is launching, ten seconds. There’s one left, but—oh, fucking Sithspit, enemies are converging on the pod room. Move!”
It wasn’t clear which of them broke into a run first. Maybe they did it at the same time, as synced up as if Bastila had been working her magic—though the idea of having Hestera’s mind linked to his was more terrifying than compelling. It was clear, though, that his charge was the faster one. She outpaced him quickly, skidded to a stop before a T-junction, flung a grenade down the hall to her right, and then hastily gestured for him to follow her straight through. He did, with barely a glance at the people she’d just taken out—a tech and their two guards, from the flicker of unarmored skin he caught. Probably trying to stop a launch.
The most important launch had already happened. Now he had another duty, even if he was—strictly speaking—being towed along in its wake.
It was Hestera that reached the pod room first, barely pausing to let the door slide out, breathing a tiny bit too evenly for someone who had run a true sprint. She snapped a salute at Carth as she came to a stop, and he gave her a small nod in return. If he was taking the situation badly, it didn’t show as more than a slightly grimmer cast to his eternal seriousness. He gave Trask a more pronounced nod, and said, “Lieutenant.” That was all before he turned to the console beside the last pod, entering in the codes to begin its opening and launch protocols.
Trask shifted on his feet—not panicking, but a bit nervous somewhere in the back of his head. Let us make it, he thought, though he had little faith anyone was listening. Let them not fire on their own damned people, for once, and save us all by accident.
“Come on,” Carth muttered, “unseal, damn you…”
Hestera was moving again, eyes fixed on one of the doors. She mouthed something—with her expression, it looked like a curse.
Trask began to say something, though he wasn’t sure exactly what he could say, when he was supposed to keep her convinced her intuition was only intuition. It didn’t matter. The thought died on his lips as a red saber plunged through the seal around the doorframe, cutting far more steadily than he’d managed.
“Shit,” said Hestera, quietly. Then, with no change in tone: “Onasi?”
“It’s unsealing!” said Carth. “Come on, you piece of junk…”
A pause that lasted only a heartbeat, only an inch of progress on that molten line. “Trask,” Hestera said, in a hard-edged voice that could have come from High Command itself. “Put your arm out—yes, like that—and stab through the door. Now.”
Without thinking twice—without thinking once—he lit the saber and flung himself forwards. He slammed into the wall, arm flung wide, saber pointed to pierce the middle of the door.
It was, objectively, the most absurd combat maneuver he’d ever pulled.
The red blade vanished. Trask staggered back again, hoping to avoid it reappearing in his elbow; after a few moments, it instead reappeared in another part of the door-seam. But—time bought. Precious instants.
There was a hiss as the pod unsealed, and a sound of scrambling. “In!” snapped Carth’s voice. “Go! Go! Lieutenant, now!”
This is it, Trask thought. This is how it happens… “You go,” he said, circling around for another jab—could he do it? He tried, but the Sith had repositioned enough that there was only a flicker in the enemy weapon. “They’ll get in—go, both of you! Launch!”
“Don’t be stupid—”
“Resealing,” said Hestera, in that same unflinching tone, as the red saber cut the final inch and Trask scrambled back to avoid being squished. “Launch protocol engaged. I’m sor—”
There was a clunk as the pod ejected.
“Well, well,” murmured Bandon—and it was Bandon, even if he didn’t look much like himself anymore. “I’ve missed your last Jedi by inches, haven’t I? No matter.”
You have no idea how wrong you are. Trask swallowed, looked up into his old comrade’s eyes, and raised the lightsaber. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I guess you did.”
I hate writing beginnings. I hate writing beginnings so much that I procrastinated writing any of the six I should have been writing in order to start on a different beginning, which I hated writing slightly less.
Chapter 3: Landing on Taris, Part One
CW: Alcohol, vaguely questionable flirting. I would warn for the main character thinking she used to be a space cop, but since she’s actually a war criminal… well.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The escape pods were equipped for re-entry. Theoretically.
That didn’t make it their ideal use-case.
Hestera double-checked her straps and mentally called it good; the various safety gear all showed green lights. No tractor beam caught the pod in those first few silent moments. (No one blew them up, either, but that wasn’t entirely a surprise. Bastila had escaped, and the Sith clearly wanted her alive—they wouldn’t know which pod was hers.) She had the briefest window to study the man across from her—a captain from the bars pinned to his jacket, though otherwise not in uniform, his face turned grimly to the outer window—before the pod hit the atmosphere and began to shudder.
It was like they were being hammered at. (No inertial compensators, the analytical part of her observed—too expensive for an escape pod that could survive the descent without them.) The sensation was oddly familiar, after the simulations she’d gone through in basic; there was barely a tingle of fear at the back of her mind. Score one for Republic Navy training.
Outside the small bubble window, the sky caught on fire. Gravity mounted, going from the brief freefall after launch to a hard tug; she felt an upshift of adrenaline, that tingle of fear sharpening back into clarity. Her skull throbbed at her, distant and ignorable. She began running through the rote guidelines for an uncompensated landing: body pulled into the cushioning of her seat, arms tucked against her body, tongue safely behind her teeth.
The wind became audible. The braking thrusters burned.
(She hadn’t dreamed of excitement when she’d enlisted, only duty. She had chosen to serve because she’d had the choice, and not making it would have haunted her. But then she’d nearly died to someone else’s petty, stupid mistake, then she’d spent months in medbay, then she’d stared mortality and memory loss in their monotonous eyes—and after that, the animal terror of the fall almost felt good…)
They were plummeting towards the city. Captain Onasi, in his own padded seat, made a small, disgruntled noise. Privately, Hestera agreed with him—the g-forces were more uncomfortable with every moment as the braking thrusters fought the planet’s pull. Too slow a descent would have turned them into skeet or allowed enemies to converge on their position; a good military escape pod (and this was a good military escape pod) straddled the line between that and turning them into goo. The result was dangerous and uncomfortable and cut with vicious anticipation, but either air defense had been warned about the incoming valuable target—not ideal, but they had better chances against a squad of ground troops than a missile, and any Sith would likely be held back until they could orient—or they weren’t in line of sight to any defense cannons.
But their trajectory would have been logged either way. Braking thrusters were maneuvering thrusters—Hestera reached for the controls, fighting the heaviness of her limbs, suddenly certain they weren’t coming down anywhere good—
Vertigo reared up. It was Captain Onasi who grabbed the stick, wrenching them into a stomach-twisting roll, and—neatly disproving the first theory, not that Hestera had the wherewithal to care—that was when the air defense cannons began firing.
She slipped back into unconsciousness before they landed. It was, she recalled thinking, not like she had anything else to do…
Bastila, rising from an escape pod in a filthy alley, dazed and confused.
Bastila, on the bridge of an unfamiliar ship, brandishing her lightsaber.
Bastila, cross-legged in a cell, trying not to show fear.
(What’s going on here?)
But there was no answer. Just Bastila, Bastila, Bastila…
Hestera woke alone, in an apartment that she had never seen before. It was dim and cramped, mostly a single room, with a door in one wall probably leading to an attached refresher. Her head hurt, but that was nothing new. She sat up—a painful endeavor—and looked more carefully.
There were no weapons in sight, but her boots were beside the door. Captain Onasi’s sleeveless jacket hung on a hook beside it, pockets bulging. There was a locker at the foot of the single bed that seemed large enough to hold an unextended vibrosword and a couple of rifles. Maybe her clothing too, since—she noted belatedly—she appeared to have been stripped to her underclothes. Beside the bed was an unrolled cot, which implied she’d been here for at least one of the captain’s sleep-cycles. Her throat ached with thirst; she updated that estimate to a full day.
She tried the door first anyway, just to assure herself that she wasn’t locked in. She wasn’t, which saved her the trouble of having to break out in her underwear—though her lack of clothing kept her from going exploring. While the sleeveless, mid-thigh-length undersuit wasn’t as indecent as it could have been—or particularly identifiable as Republic make, for that matter—it certainly wasn’t normal streetwear, and drawing attention wasn’t exactly a good opening strategy. (Even if that attention was merely… physically inclined, it would be an inconvenience at best.) She went through Carth’s vest instead, and found the pockets full of possibly-stolen first aid supplies. Interesting.
With that settled, she headed for the ‘fresher, intending to get a drink of water. Void, she was thirsty.
As she moved around more, her body let her know how stiff and sore it was. Some part of her almost wished for a fresh crisis, to recapture the adrenaline-fueled resilience she had felt before her impromptu nap. The rest came down hard on that urge—she was a soldier, Void alive, not a kriffing thrillseeker—and she returned to the bed, a cup of tepid tap water in one hand. Only a great deal of discipline kept her from gulping it down. It was a shame there wasn’t a ration bar around too—but she would make do. Unless there was one in the locker?
The locker, like the door, was blessedly unlocked. The weapons were inside, remaining grenade and all, and her clothing beneath them. Unfortunately, ‘her clothing’ was a Republic uniform, and the Endar Spire had been here in the first place to break the Sith’s control; since that engagement had very clearly failed, her uniform was useless for the time being. There was a ration bar, though, tucked into a pouch on her uniform belt. She withdrew it, unwrapped it, and chewed on it thoughtfully.
(In the back of her mind, she was considering the situation. Captain Onasi might not return—his vest would be better than nothing, and she could get her hands on some pants with a bit of work, and then… then she would just have to find Bastila on her own, somehow. And that was the extent to which she could plan, with so little information.)
Eventually, though, Captain Onasi did come back—if not before Hestera was beginning to worry. He slipped into the room with a box tucked under one arm, saw her pacing, and paused with a start. (In much the same way Trask had, seeing her trying to slice the lock, and that thought brought a twinge of survivor’s guilt with it.) Surprise made him look younger than he’d seemed, maybe even within a decade of her; she took in his actual appearance, rather than just his body language, for the first time. Russet-brown hair and stubble, sharp brown eyes, a frame that ran towards stocky and spoke to time in the Endar Spire’s weight room—he was probably handsome, if one cared about such things. “I see you’re up and about,” he said, after a few awkward moments. “Good. I was getting worried. It seemed like you’d hit your head during the landing, and… well, I’m not a doctor. I did what I could.”
She bared her teeth in a sparkling grin. “Don’t worry, Captain,” she said. “I’ve built up an immunity.”
“To head wounds?”
“Certainly not to doctors. Or gravity.” Hestera laughed and let the grin drop into something more sincere, rubbing evocatively at one bruised shoulder. “I take it I was out for a while.”
“It’s been a day and a half, at least, since I dragged you away from the crashed pod. I wasn’t sure you would ever wake up, to be honest. Then you mostly did a couple times, but I could barely get a few sips of water into you.” The captain shook his head. “I don’t understand this bounce-back, but for once, I’m not going to complain. Ah—I’m Carth Onasi, by the way. Captain, for my sins, but you already know that.”
“Hestera Soral. Crewman.”
“Crewman,” he muttered, giving her a strange look. “Right. What department?”
Void, had she even gotten an assignment after her release? She squinted vaguely, rifling through her memories. “Auxiliary sensors, I think, but don’t quote me on that. I just got over my last concussion.”
“That’s correct. What was your room assignment?”
“Deck two, bunkroom 46, with Lieutenant Trask Ulgo.” She should have been able to save him—but there was no point in dwelling on it.
“Who’s the Supreme Chancellor?”
“Tol Cressa. Am I fit for duty, doc?”
Carth’s grimace returned. “Look,” he said, “I’m not going to tell you to call me ‘sir’—whatever the brass thinks, I’m just an overgrown grunt—but I’m pretty sure that’s not an appropriate way to address your CO. You got that?” Without waiting for a response, he added, “We’re stuck together on a hostile planet. Our only advantage is that the Sith aren’t looking for us—yet. Which means that we need to be careful, and we need to work well with each other.”
“Yes, sir,” said Hestera, and then paused to consider what he’d said. She cleared her throat. “I mean—what should I call you?”
He shrugged, looking exasperated. “My name?”
She grinned at him. “That works,” she said, and rolled her shoulders as she took a few steps closer. “I assume the only thing we—by which I mean the Spire—did damage to was the blockade?”
“That would be right.” Carth sighed quietly. “Our intel was bad, I guess. We were expecting a token force, and what we got was… not that. Sith installations on the planet are still up and running, as far as I know, and they’ve upped the restrictions under martial law recently. Stricter curfews, full weapon bans, the like.” He snorted. “Apparently a lot of the population liked to go armed, and now they can’t even carry stunners with a permit. Unless they join up, that is.”
Hestera nodded thoughtfully. “Are the Sith recruiting a lot of locals, then?” she asked. If they were—there could be something to work with, in that. This wasn’t Coruscant, with a cutting-edge central ID database; enlisting civilians would introduce sapien error, and sapien error might lead to opportunities.
“Some. They’re always shorthanded; no one knows where they get all their ships, but it apparently doesn’t have a matching population. So they recruit, sometimes.” Carth’s expression twisted, turning into something sour and dangerous. “Sweep in, take the planet’s airspace, bomb it until it surrenders—and somehow they keep finding volunteers anyway.”
Really, it makes sense, Hestera didn’t say, because she was familiar with the concept of tact. It’s cowardice, but most people aren’t very brave, are they? They’d much rather point a gun at their fellow citizens than have the gun pointed at them… Frowning slightly, she changed the subject: “Do we have any leads on Bastila’s location?”
“While you were out, I’ve been scouting around. Talking to some of the other trapped off-worlders, especially the aliens—apparently they’re second-class citizens at best here.” Carth grimaced at this. “Anyway, a few people saw an escape pod or two go down in the Undercity. Ah—we managed to end up in the worst part of the good part of town, basically. The Undercity is… less the bad part of town, from what I’ve heard, and more the kind of thing that gets government officials put on trial for crimes against sapiens.” He shook his head, slowly, and his eyes lingered somewhere far away for a moment. “Bet those officials are doing just fine right now.”
A curl of hot anger rose in Hestera’s chest, inexplicably energizing. “I’m sure they are,” she muttered. “The Sith get a cooperative local government, the mucky-mucks don’t get lined up against a wall and shot. Perfect symbiosis.” And damn the people, apparently, if they weren’t human and up here. (Good thing you lot collaborated, she thought, in some parallel track of her mind. Gives us an excuse to shoot you… But that wasn’t going to happen now.) She rubbed her hands together absently, considering—“We should probably get moving. Where exactly are we?”
“Old residential sector. This whole building’s supposed to be abandoned, technically, but nobody ever shut off the electricity or water, so I guess the squatters have a friend in planetary maintenance.”
“Good to know,” said Hestera. “Everyone should have a friend.” She let a teasing note creep into her voice. “Especially one who will come to check on them when they’re injured and, oh, remember that they don’t have any clothing…”
Carth sighed and handed her the box. “I didn’t have that many credits on me,” he said, “but I found a pawn shop and something that looked like it’d fit. And a belt.”
“Thank you. As plans go, I don’t think I’m cut out for seduction.” She took the box, which was long and flattish and made of repeatedly-recycled pulpboard, and gingerly opened it. Inside were a shirt and pants, the former dark gray and the latter a worn black-and-brown. Both were a bit too big, which Hestera found inexplicably cheering; there was, she decided, a distinct appeal to clothes that refrained from showing anything off. It made you harder to size up.
Carth made the particular face of a man who did not want to consider his subordinate in the same sentence as seduction. “I, um, wouldn’t… wouldn’t say I’d thought about that. In either direction.” He put a hand over his face. “Ugh,” he said, emphatically. “What I mean is—without in any way commenting on your appearance—please put on some pants, crewman.”
Did you undress me? she almost asked, but that… wasn’t something to ask an officer, particularly in that tone of voice, even—especially—if you had found in yourself a sudden urge to see him blush. It wasn’t an implication any decent sort of person would appreciate. Hestera probably should have been ashamed for thinking it. “Yes, sir,” she said, with a truly obnoxious salute, and headed for the tiny ‘fresher before she could get any more bright ideas. They were, she thought, not welcome.
Carth explained things, on the way out. Travel to the Lower City was restricted now, with only Sith patrols and specially authorized people allowed to cross through; this was new, and had apparently resulted in a vagrancy problem among the stranded off-worlders, because a lot of them hadn’t had the money to rent rooms in the Upper City. Tensions between the Tarisians and the occupying force had not, to put it lightly, been improved by this. There hadn’t been skirmishes topside yet, but a lot of people seemed to think it was just a matter of time…
“Nice day for a riot,” said Hestera dryly. “I hope that’s not our Plan A?”
“No. Void, no. The last thing we need is that kind of mess.” Carth made a face at the thought. “What we need is a way to sneak in,” he said, “hopefully without anyone having to pull a big, loud distraction. I’ve got a couple thoughts, but—well.”
Hestera nodded, mostly to herself, as she strolled along beside him. “No plan yet?” she murmured. “Alright. What kind of ID is an off-worlder expected to have?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure there’s…” He gave her an odd look. “Some of them know my face, you know.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, low as a whisper, the honorific turning into something pointy between her teeth. “But they don’t know mine.”
He glanced over his shoulder. When he looked back at her, his mouth was a hard line. “You’re not just talking about getting through ID checks.”
“No,” admitted Hestera, dipping her head. “I have a PlanSec background. Basic was half a formality, and the rest just learning new procedures. And they’re desperate for anyone they can get, it sounds like. If they’re still playing at normal training, putting people through their boot camp and all the rest—then we’ll find another way.” She leaned forwards to whisper into his ear, just two residents having an argument no one else needed to hear about. “But if we need to find Bastila, wouldn’t the best way be to get assigned to look?”
“And what do I do if you don’t come back, afterwards?” He was staying quiet, too, but there was a hiss of real anger in his voice. Urgency, too. “I know you signed up and took the oath,” he said, “same as me—but so did a lot of them, crewman. How do I know you care what uniform you’re wearing?”
Hestera paused, and her eyes automatically flicked away to check the street around her. (Almost nobody there. Certainly nobody watching, and no one in Sith armor patrolling yet. Good.) She wanted to be angry, but… he did have a point. It was just that he was pointing it at her. Wheels spun in her mind, searching for a way to fix that, the words to prove she was at least loyal enough for now—and snapped into place. “You don’t,” she allowed, holding his gaze. “I’m new, I’m green, nobody knows me. I can’t prove a negative. I’m not what you want. But I’m what you have.” Her voice dropped further, barely a breath. “If we’re not in this together, we’re in this alone. Right?”
“Sure,” said Carth, dry and unimpressed. “That’s why I want to stay together. I don’t need you running off alone.” He made a sharp gesture, beckoning for her to fall in beside him, and started walking again. “No solo missions. No heroic lone infiltrations. I don’t know who you are when nobody’s looking, and I don’t trust anyone until I know that.”
Hestera’s lips twisted into a smile. “I think there’s a small flaw in that logic, Carth.”
“Really? I don’t.”
“Ah,” said Hestera, enlightened. She relaxed slightly. Being personally distrusted was one thing; someone who distrusted everyone either ended up on the news or got real good at working with people anyway, and Carth had clearly been functioning as an officer. “Okay, fair enough, then. But I still think it’s a good plan. Or the best one we’ve got, at least.” She laughed under her breath. “There are a lot of people who look a bit like you—I’m sure we can get you looking only a bit like you…”
There was a brief pause. “Yeah, maybe,” Carth eventually said, though he didn’t sound like he liked saying it. “But first I’m going to take you to the cantina the off-worlders like to drink at. There’s still a bit of fellow-feeling left to go around, and maybe somebody there’ll know about ID. Just—try to be subtle.”
They were getting towards a better part of town, closer to the locked-down spaceport. There were people on the streets now, some looking like locals with somewhere to be, some looking stranded and disgruntled. And, oh yes, up the street a bit, someone in shiny black armor was patrolling… “I can be subtle,” murmured Hestera, practicing the fine art of watching the world around her without looking like she was watching anything at all. “That fellow getting up on a box, though—”
“People of Taris!”
“Oh, no,” said Carth.
Which was entirely correct. The would-be rabble-rouser —an older human man, pale and balding and plainly dressed—cleared his throat and surveyed the people around him. It wasn’t even a crowd, quite, because it was too thin and sparse for that, but it was focused on him, and that seemed to be the important part. “People of Taris!” he repeated, louder. “Listen to me! Heed my warning, before it’s too late!”
“What does that damn fool think he’s doing?” Carth hissed, apparently largely to himself. “There’s Sith right down the street!”
“There is a scourge sweeping this planet, my friends! A pox as bad as the rakghoul plague!” The rabble-rouser, emboldened by the attention—and, yes, more people were approaching, drawn by the very sapien fear of Something Happening Without Them—swept his arm through the air and beckoned them all closer. “An enemy that walks among us, on these very streets! Come, all of you, and listen!”
Hestera watched, grimly transfixed. She had been PlanSec, once, in the fuzzy pre-head-injury portion of her life, and she knew how these things started. It wasn’t when someone climbed on a box and started shouting. It was when someone in uniform showed up to stop them, and suddenly the crowd didn’t have to wonder who would make the first move anymore. This crowd, she hoped, was too small for a riot, but did the Sith soldiers know that? (You can’t find Bastila if you’re dead, she thought, which makes this the time to walk away…) But a massacre would make everything a whole lot worse, and it was easier to sneak into the enemy ranks before the enemy ranks decided they were at war with the general public.
She made the only decision she could make. Slowly, casually, she started to walk towards the man on the box.
He looked at her with a smugness that was, in her opinion, entirely unwarranted. And it was the wrong kind of smugness for what he seemed to be doing. It wasn’t a righteous expression at all—just petty and mean. “You!” he said. “Yes, come forwards, listen to me—my name is Gorton Colu. Will you join my cause? Will you help defend Taris?”
Hestera discarded what she was going to say; he wasn’t the right sort of person for it. “I don’t know,” she drawled instead; cut the momentum, she thought, make this easy, hope the occupiers are smart enough not to light the keg of engine fuel they’re sitting down on. “Which side are we defending it from this week?”
The crowd didn’t exactly laugh, but they chuckled nervously. (It was a cynical crowd, yes, made up of people who probably didn’t care who won so long as they were okay at the end—she’d judged that correctly.) Gorton, for his part, looked faintly baffled. “Side?” he said. “What do you mean, side?”
Bafflement was catching. “Er,” said Hestera, her own momentum faltering. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s rather a lot of people in uniform who like to shoot at each other…”
“You think this is about the war?” Gorton drew himself up, somehow projecting the sincere belief that nothing could be less important than a war. “About the new government of Taris, perhaps? No! This is about the alien menace! Do our lawmakers truly think the permit system is enough? Especially now, when our planetary security has all been sent off to search for Republic spies?” He made a short, sharp gesture. “It’s obscene, the laxity. We must demand better!”
Confusion warred with a distinct urge to drag the man down by his shirt collar. Confusion won, mostly because there wasn’t anything Hestera could do to him that the nice shiny-armored soldier heading towards them wouldn’t take offense to. “Right,” she said, for once fumbling for her words. And then, worried he’d take that as agreement, “You have fun with that. Sorry, officer, I’ll get out of the way—”
“Go,” snapped the Sith soldier, waving a hand vaguely. “You, street preacher, let me check your permits. Now.”
“I have one!” said Gorton, proffering it indignantly. “I filled out all your paperwork. I am entitled to spread my message!”
“Oh, look,” said the soldier, “the filing fee just went up. You have fifty credits?”
Hestera caught up with Carth at the edges of the rapidly-dispersing crowd. “I think,” she murmured, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “the Sith just accidentally committed a public service. Let’s go.”
Carth snorted in irritation, shaking his head. “And this is why we don’t play with the locals,” he muttered back. “What were you trying to pull, anyway? We don’t want attention, in case you forgot.”
“De-escalation. Keep him from getting himself shot and maybe kicking off that riot we don’t want. Or from just getting himself shot, for that matter.”
“Looked to me like you were insulting him.”
“He didn’t want to be de-escalated,” she said grimly.
“Right. Well…” Carth sighed. “I guess ‘subtle’ was a little much to ask. So here’s some nice, clear orders—don’t start a cantina brawl, alright?”
She chuckled softly and slid her hands into her pockets. “I promise to do my level best.”
The cantina sprawled out across several rooms, with a sign on one door declaring there to be sleeping quarters upstairs—none of which were currently available for rent. Even with so much space, it was packed. Pazaak players and their bored spectators crowded one area, and through an archway, a large circular bar was the centerpiece of another. The noise was incredible. (But all in Basic, as far as Hestera could hear, and the only aliens visible were a trio of twi’lek dancers on a stage in the central room.) The problem of the stranded spacers, laid out so very concretely, tugged at the buzzingly-analytical edges of her mind; she ran her tongue along her teeth and tried to remember that it wasn’t her problem.
Carth led the way, moving like someone who knew where he was going but wasn’t quite happy about it—the general din seemed to be putting him on edge, on top of all his other frustrations. There were a couple people he nodded to, and who nodded back. Mostly, though, he kept walking, gaze occasionally skimming over the crowd.
It paused for a moment in the same place Hestera’s did: a couple of tables in the back of the central bar. There were only a few people sitting there, and they were wearing the same sort of civvies as everyone else, but the crowd was giving them enough of a berth to make it very clear who they were. You really aren’t very popular, are you? she thought, looking away before the glance started to seem like anything more than survival instinct. If you’d come in on the aliens’ side, you might have been seen as their liberators. But they didn’t have the power. It would have consumed too many resources. So now you have a government of cowards under your thumb, disgruntled civilians, angry spacers, and an underclass you certainly haven’t done anything to help. She felt a flash of professional vindication at that—that’s how it ends when you run PlanSec wrong, you bastards.
Carth led her over to the bar, ordered two extremely cheap drinks from a droid, and beckoned her over towards one of the tables. “Come on,” he said, “looks like she’s here—I’ll introduce you to Darny. She’s a free trader, owns a decent-sized ship. She knows about the ID laws, I’ll bet.”
Hestera took a careful sip of her drink, well aware that if she spilled it, she would be spilling it on somebody’s boots. It tasted exactly like you’d expect from the beer you got in and around starports, reputedly the same anywhere in the galaxy. “Coming around?” she asked.
And there was no time to puzzle out how to keep selling him on a plan that couldn’t be put into words—without talking around it so obviously that it looked suspicious—because they were there. Darny, presumably Captain Darny to her crew and customers, was a tall, heavyset, middle-aged woman. Human, like all the customers, with tan skin and a bob of curly blonde hair. Good clothing, but not ostentatious. She oozed ‘legitimate free trader.’ (Helpful—potentially—for a thousand different things, none of which were applicable to the current situation.) Darny glanced up from a datapad as the pair approached, lifting one hand in an almost-wave. “Carth,” she said, an odd approving note in her voice. “So this is your co-pilot. Not really what I expected.”
Carth looked like someone who wanted to flinch at the sound of his own name. For an instant, he seemed a little too still, his jaw a little too set—and then, sighing, he forced himself to relax. “Yeah,” he said, “wait til you talk to her. Captain Darny, this is Hestera, probably not as bad as she seems. Hestera, this is Captain Darny, a business acquaintance from before all this. She ships a lot of plasteel, power cells, things like that.”
Someone who knew, then. Maybe a Republic agent, maybe just a vaguely sympathetic face. Carth was probably driving himself up a wall wondering exactly how deep the woman’s loyalties ran. “Call me Hes,” said Hestera, extending her free hand. “It’s less of a mouthful.”
Darny took the proffered hand with a businesswoman’s grip, shaking it firmly. “Shall do,” she said. “Now, have a seat, you two—tell me what you’re about.” She gestured at the empty chairs around her table. There was a hint of persona in the way she talked and moved, deliberate in ways most people weren’t. Practiced salesmanship. “My crew’s off doing useful things at the spaceport, and the fellow I’m trying to offload my cargo on won’t be here for half an hour, so I’ve got the space and the time—ha, nothing but the time. It’s not like we’ll be taking on anything new any time soon…”
If that was a covert jab at them, there was no rancor in it. Carth frowned anyway, somewhere between apologetic and rampantly uncomfortable; it was easy to see why. He was a self-admitted functional paranoid, but not the kind who was paid to be. “Information,” he muttered, sitting down. “If we’re going to be stranded here, there’s things we need to know.”
Hestera stepped around a chair and sat as well, flashing a sharp-but-friendly grin at the trader captain. “Like how to make money around here,” she added, “since we happen to be flat broke. Or, well”—she held up her drink—“I am, at least. My captain may or may not have spent his last credit.”
“Damn near,” said Carth. He shot her a warning look. It probably meant something like tone it down or let me lead, crewman, which was—a very reasonable objection, actually. He was the commanding officer here; it was his responsibility to get them through this. Her responsibility was to shut up and follow his orders. (Surely she had been better about this in basic, or she wouldn’t have gotten this far in the first place—surely her old PlanSec chief wouldn’t have stood for insubordination… well, maybe it was the chief’s fault, then. Subconscious revenge against the damn fool hypocrite.)
Hestera raised a hand to her head, suppressing a faint grimace. “Anyway,” she said. “I’ll shut my mouth and let you two captains work out the details.”
“Thanks,” said Carth icily. He leaned forwards, lowering his voice even more, until even Hestera could barely hear. “Look. You know my squad saved your ship, in the old war,” he whispered, the words spilling out in a rush. “I don’t like calling in debts for doing my duty—but I am. Not money, not anything that should put you in danger, just a question or two.” His fingers tightened around the base of his glass. “What IDs are the Sith looking for? And who are they giving authorization to? To get into the Lower City, I mean.”
“I suppose I deserve that,” said Darny, “considering I did say that I owe you one.” She sighed and took a sip of her drink. “You’re certainly desperate now… no, don’t give me that look, I’m not about to ask for money. You don’t have any. Or more favors than you’ve done, because you can’t give me those either.” Her glass spun in her hands, the small quantity of liquid that remained sloshing around inside. “They’re taking any civilian ID when they check, and don’t check much, ‘cause if they started mass-arresting the spacers there would be trouble. But they’re giving authorization papers just to Tarisians, ones who are useful or rich enough. And also some of the aliens who had permits to work up here, I think, like the dancers. That’s all I know, and I think I’m glad about that, hm?” She grinned. “Now either let’s talk about better things, or take your broke selves over to that bartender droid and ask about the legal bloodsports, because—look, I did not get where I am by giving money to random down-on-their-luck pilots.”
Back into the cover story. It was immediately evident why; one of the Sith soldiers had wandered away from her table to buy another drink. “How about when they recruit?” murmured Hestera. She thumbed the pouch on her new belt, into which she had transferred the non-incriminating contents of her uniform’s pockets. “I have Coruscanti ID…” Her original homeworld, though her family had left when she was only two, and the source of her Republic citizenship. Half the spacers in the galaxy were from Coruscant, just by sheer numbers—it was only a suspicious place to come from if you thought all anonymity was suspect.
“Little asteroid gods,” muttered Darny. And then, hastily, “What a rubbish job. You might as well sell your ship and fund yourselves that way, for all the chance you’d have at getting off this rock again.
“Not everyone owns their ship,” said Carth, who was clearly not faking the grudging note in his voice—just the reason behind it. But he was going along with Hestera’s plan anyway, just that tiny bit, and she allowed herself to hope…
Darny quirked an eyebrow. “Them, though?” she asked, raising her glass to her lips.
As if you have a better plan, civvie-trader. You aren’t running this blockade. “I’m willing to fall on that sword,” said Hestera, “for my captain’s sake.”
Her captain was trying to eviscerate her with his eyes. “We’re still discussing it.”
“Mm.” Darny drained the last of the cup. “Somewhere else, please.” She raised the empty glass in an ironic toast, smirking rakishly at them. “Work out your little who’s-the-captain-here problem on your own time. If you would?”
Over to the side, the Sith soldier who had been ordering a drink was saying something to her fellows, gesturing with her free hand. They were all standing up now; as Hestera watched, the other soldiers waved, split off, and headed towards the door, while the drink-buyer began making her way over to the pazaak tables. Something about the woman’s posture grabbed at her mind…
“I think we will,” Hestera murmured, pushing herself up. “Thank you.”
Carth grabbed his glass and stood, expression now skeptical as well as unimpressed. “What now?” he asked. “I don’t think we have somewhere to be—ah, and thank you, Darny, we’ll work this out—anyway.” His hand came down on Hestera’s upper arm, ready to steer her through the crowd. “Please tell me you’re not going to try and cheat at pazaak.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I barely even know how to play.” Hestera shot him a sharp grin, feeling something fizzing in her head; not a real plan yet, but almost the shape of it. “I’m just going to buy somebody a drink,” she said, then paused with her hand halfway towards her belt pouch. “No—scratch that. I’m going to get somebody to buy me a drink.”
“Oh, really? Just like that?” He snorted, but allowed her to tow him towards the card tables. “I thought you said you weren’t that smooth.”
“I said that I’m not cut out to seduce our way out of this,” she said, chuckling, “not that I can’t appreciate my fellow sapiens—” She stopped. “Is there someone else you can talk to? Not to contribute to any captaincy confusion, but I think a third wheel might make this awkward.”
“Is there—?” Carth stared in speechless frustration for a moment, then gave a single sharp shake of his head. “We’re going to talk about this,” he said, taking a step towards the bar. “Later. Go.”
Thus released, Hestera bobbed her head at him, still grinning, and started moving again. The crowd wasn’t thick enough to make it hard to get around, but it was thick enough that you couldn’t do it in a straight line. She stepped around a man who looked like he avoided the sun as a hobby, and strolled off towards the pazaak tables, her half-empty glass dangling from her fingers. The urge to hum was entirely inappropriate—and her singing voice certainly wouldn’t win her any friends—but she felt energized. She’d spent too much time cooped up in medbays with no one to talk to.
The first thing she noticed was that the Sith soldier didn’t seem to be popular at the gambling tables. That wasn’t a surprise, but it felt like an opportunity. The woman was leaning against an empty chair, trying to talk a thin, dark-skinned man into another game; it sounded like they were both regulars.
“I’m waiting for someone,” the man said, shrugging. “Sorry.”
“Void and its Maw,” said the soldier. She was plainly disgusted. “Who?”
“Someone I can play for money. Without worrying about being arrested if I win.”
“Ugh.” She made a face. “Like I want to risk my paycheck anyway.”
The man began shuffling his cards. “Right. Some of us have a spacedock berth to pay for.”
“I’ll play you,” said Hestera, stepping sidelong into the invisible boundary of the conversation. She was still grinning. “It’s not like I have a paycheck to risk.”
The soldier’s eyes barely passed over her. “I can’t get you off-planet,” she snapped, moving to step around her.
“Little asteroid gods,” said Hestera, borrowing Darny’s curse, “have people been asking you to?”
Lips twisting into a grimace, the soldier stopped and turned back. She was tall and square and angular—though not quite as tall or angular as Hestera—and she moved with all the barely-contained aggression of a rancor. “Obviously,” she growled. “Why else would you try and make friends with the big bad Sith officer? Everyone thinks I can get them off-planet, or pretend like they aren’t running spice, or—get them out of a parking ticket or something. It’s just another perk of the job.” Even her laugh was sharp and graceless; there was something almost attractive about it. “So let’s skip to the part where you find out I can’t get you what you want, and I’ll go back to our tiny shitty break room at our big shitty base and laugh at the stupid pushy spacers. Deal?”
“I can’t imagine why no one wants to play cards with you,” said Hestera, with a twitch of her lips to show she wasn’t too serious. “Is it really as bad as all that? They’re trying to sell it pretty hard, I hear.”
“Spare me the sympathy,” said the soldier. Her eyes drifted off towards the bar.
“Play a hand with me,” said Hestera, “and I will.”
The soldier laughed again, with a little bit less contempt and a little bit more interest. She took a few steps towards an empty table, and Hestera followed her. “You’re that sure you’d win?”
“No. I’ve never played pazaak in my life.” Hestera raised her glass, smiling mischievously over the rim of it. “But I’m the most annoying, overconfident bastard in this entire cantina, and you should definitely fleece me for all my imaginary credits.”
“Well, some of that is obviously true.” The soldier ran a hand along the base of her undercut. “Annoying. Overconfident. I hope you have a lot of imaginary credits.”
“I’m imagining them right now,” said Hestera, sweeping a hand to indicate this. She grabbed a chair and pulled it out, gesturing for the soldier to sit, then slid into the one across. “Mind giving me your name?” she asked. “Unless that’s classified Sith business, of course.”
“Sarna,” said the soldier, sparing herself any further jokes about Sith intelligence (and, most likely, the difficulty in finding any). She sat down and pulled a couple of decks from her shirt pocket. “Corporal Sarna, when I’m not here.” She bared her teeth in something like a grin. “They don’t really like it when we mingle.”
Fucking officers wasn’t something a fake free trader could say, but it sat behind Hestera’s very most sympathetic smile. “Of course not. This is obviously a hotbed of rebellion,” she half-drawled (though oh, it could have been), and held out her free hand. Sarna’s fingers brushed hers as the deck was transferred over. It felt like a very tiny victory. “I’m Hestera. Most people call me Hes, though you can call me that asshole if you’d like. I think it’s my captain’s—oh, let’s be real, former captain’s—favorite name for me.”
Sarna didn’t look up from shuffling. “You’re trying too hard.”
“Always,” acknowledged Hestera, attempting to maneuver her cards like she knew what she was doing. She hadn’t been lying when she said she’d never played pazaak before.
That got another sharp laugh, more of the bitterness leaching out each time. Sarna seemed, in some undefinable way, like she desperately wanted that—like she needed someone to take all of it and not falter, in the way someone might need water on a wasted city-world. (Far away, the headache was coming back.) Then she reached out a hand, actually almost smiling, and said, “I can shuffle that. If you want.”
Which was better? Lean into the sudden decency, or keep all that sharpness from thinking this had become too easy? Her instincts told her to do one thing, pain hovering at the edges of her awareness, but Hestera chose the other and pushed the pile of cards towards Sarna. “Here,” she said, trying to shake the feeling that there was something stupid and petty and needless about what she was doing. “Or we’ll be here all day, I think.”
“Yeah, I can tell.” Sarna scooped the cards towards her side of the table, then paused and grinned wickedly. “Say ‘please.’”
Hestera leaned forwards. “Please,” she said, in a voice that—while not a purr—did not live very far away from it. She had possibly been shading the truth when she said she wasn’t cut out for seduction; Sarna’s face was suddenly a little too fixed, a little too blank, and there was a hint of a flush to her cheeks. Good. That’s right. Come on…
“Right,” Sarna said, quickly, with just a tiny hitch in her voice. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Her hands moved quickly, cards almost dancing under her calloused, practiced fingers, but her focus seemed—caught, wavering like a fish on a hook. Then she cleared her throat, very obviously trying to get a hold of herself. “So, anyway,” she added, “if you’re too broke to play for credits, and you’re not trying to sweet-talk the all-powerful Sith occupiers into letting you out of a traffic fine—”
“All-powerful?” asked Hestera, lips quirking upward.
“Sure. Who doesn’t like a woman who could clap them in binders?” Sarna’s expression was toothy and mirthless.
Hestera laughed. “I’ve worked PlanSec, you know.” That little truth was harmless, and her only selling point anyway—she just wouldn’t say why she’d left. “If you’re all-powerful, I’ll march back to Deralia just to eat my old badge.”
“Really?” asked Sarna sweetly. “How are you going to get there?”
Hestera considered this. “Ah,” she said. “Hm.” And then, after a moment: “You may have me there.”
Sarna neatly passed her back the deck. “And don’t you forget it,” she said, with more than vague satisfaction. “Now, let’s go over the rules, shall we? Since you claim you don’t know how to play.”
“If I was going to lie about that, I’d be playing for credits.” Hestera’s smile went lopsided and a little sharp. “Now come on,” she said. “Teach me something new.”
Okay, I know that was a very long wait for more chapters, and I apologize. The world is a trashfire and Hes is hard to write, and these combined weren’t conducive to getting work done on this particular fic. But since we seem to be headed for the KotOR renaissance and I haven’t been able to think of any other character since the news dropped, we are finally getting more Hes.
(Also, no, there will be no surprise Revanasi. Hes is just very much bi, and she hasn’t felt able to look at anyone that way for… a while, to say the least.)